STARRED REVIEW
January 2021

A Crooked Tree

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As 15-year-old Libby Gallagher ponders several dark moments in rock ’n’ roll history, she muses, “It all said to me that chaotic and dark forces were spinning around us. One foot wrong, and you’d be pulled into the vortex.” Unfortunately, a multitude of missteps have already affected Libby and her family, and that vortex threatens to loom closer every day in Una Mannion’s taut, richly imagined debut, A Crooked Tree.

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As 15-year-old Libby Gallagher ponders several dark moments in rock ’n’ roll history, she muses, “It all said to me that chaotic and dark forces were spinning around us. One foot wrong, and you’d be pulled into the vortex.” Unfortunately, a multitude of missteps have already affected Libby and her family, and that vortex threatens to loom closer every day in Una Mannion’s taut, richly imagined debut, A Crooked Tree.

Living near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in the early 1980s, Libby is the third of five children whose parents divorced and whose Irish immigrant father has recently died, leaving a gaping hole in their already fractured family dynamic. One evening, tempers flare during an outing, and Libby’s mom stops the car six miles from home and orders 12-year-old Ellen out of the car and into the dark, expecting her to walk the rest of the way. From that fateful moment on, Mannion sets up a series of domino-like events, skillfully building suspense that gains momentum to a dramatic conclusion.

Libby is an insightful, likable narrator who inhabits a teenage world in which adults are largely absent, busy tending to their own issues, allowing unknown dangers to blossom and grow. The Gallagher family struggles to get by emotionally and financially, and their mother has a secret boyfriend who fathered her youngest child. The story tackles many issues, including divorce, parental death, grief and child molestation, as well as class and immigration issues, making this nostalgic 1980s story surprisingly topical.

Despite the surrounding turmoil, the Gallagher clan is full of achievers. Ellen is a talented artist, observant Libby likes to lose herself in nature, and their siblings Marie and Thomas are scholastically gifted. These characters are bolstered by an intriguing supporting cast, including Libby’s close friend Sage and Thomas’ friend Jack, who becomes Libby’s romantic interest. Looming large is a sexual predator roaming the area whom the kids call Barbie Man, creating a sense of constant foreboding and fear.

A Crooked Tree marks the welcome debut of a talented, captivating new voice.

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